Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believes that friend and former assistant Raheem Morris, the Bucs' coach, will have a much easier time anticipating his moves than vice versa in today's game between the unbeaten teams at Raymond James Stadium. One year after Tomlin, then 29, was hired to coach defensive backs for the Bucs in 2001, he met a 25-year-old former Hofstra player who came aboard as the defensive quality control coach and helped him teach the secondary for the next four seasons. The two were caged in a tiny office at the Bucs' old cinder-block facility that has since been razed, so it's no wonder why Morris parrots to his players much of what Tomlin has preached for years. "He asked me my opinion a bunch, and I didn't ask him his (opinion) a lot," Tomlin said. "He's probably got the advantage this week in terms of knowing what I think and what I'm capable of. Our information kind of flowed one way when we worked together." Morris doesn't deny downloading ideas from Tomlin like a corporate thief. "He was the boss. I was his assistant," Morris said. "There's no doubt about it. But (today), we're peers." Well, not exactly.
Tomlin, now 38, already has added a Lombardi Trophy to his resume, which the Steelers won at RJS against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. He is only the third coach hired by the Rooney family (which owns the Steelers) in the past four decades, and his predecessors — Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher — combined to win 370 games and five Super Bowls.
Morris, 34, the youngest head coach in the NFL and in his second season, matched his longest career winning streak with victories over the Browns and Panthers the past two weeks.
"I've got to believe when the Glazers hired Raheem, they were crossing their fingers that we've got another Mike Tomlin," said John Lynch, the former Bucs safety who was older than both when they coached him in Tampa Bay.
But for all the common ground these men have walked — young, energetic, African-American NFL head coaches with defensive backgrounds — they have forged separate paths as independent thinkers.
"What I like about them is they're not afraid to be their own men," Lynch said. "Although they have backgrounds working with great people, the Monte Kiffins and Tony Dungys and Rod Marinellis, they're going to do it their way. They've got their own thoughts and philosophies.
"Like the first week (of the season), the Bucs played one snap of Cover 2, and everybody thought (Morris) would be a carbon copy of Monte. It's the same with Mike. He goes to Pittsburgh, and the first thing he does is retain (defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau, who runs a 3-4 defense."
Tomlin certainly has more of an edge. When he was hired by the Bucs in 2001, he had to quickly earn the respect of players who were several years older. Lynch had already been to several Pro Bowls when Tomlin handed him a tape and a binder of 65 plays he felt he could improve on.
"It was very critical," Lynch said. "At first, I took an affront to it — until I started to realize the amount of time he put into that and he showed me the way the do it.
"Mike has a huge chip on his shoulder. We butted heads pretty early because he wanted to make drastic changes in my technique. I wasn't the toughest guy to coach, but I'd challenge if he's asking me to make some wholesale changes. I was like, 'What are you doing?' He won me over because he was persistent, and all any player wants to know is, 'Can he help me get better?' He knew he had one opportunity to earn respect quickly with me."
A few years ago, while interviewing Tomlin at the Super Bowl in his job as a broadcaster with Fox, Lynch pulled out the sheet of 65 plays he had kept since 2001.
"It almost brought tears to his eyes," Lynch said. "He said, 'You have no idea how nervous I was handing that to you.' "
Tomlin wasn't on anybody's radar as a head coach after one year as Vikings defensive coordinator. And when Cowher stepped down from the Steelers after the 2006 season, it seemed inevitable offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or offensive line coach Russ Grimm would be promoted.
Tomlin was brought in partly to satisfy the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for the head coaching job. But he impressed owner Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II in two interviews to win the job.
On the eve of the AFC Championship Game in January 2009, when Tomlin was preparing to play the Ravens, the Glazers fired coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, replacing them with Morris and Mark Dominik.
Tomlin was not surprised at Morris' ascension.
"He saw the game as a 22-man picture, and not a lot of young coaches are capable of that," Tomlin said. "He's got an easy manner about him. He relates to people well. He can relay messages."
It's not an accident that Morris wants to deliver a team that resembles the Steelers, if not in scheme, at least in the style of play.
"You can't help but look at the Steelers over the years and talk about their physical presence and what they bring to the table," Morris said.
Like Tomlin, Morris preaches humility and selflessness. He even has incorporated some 3-4 fronts, taking advantage of hybrid players such as Quincy Black.
Tomlin and Morris vacation together in the offseason, and it's hard to imagine two NFL coaches with a tighter bond. Of course, Morris is unrecognizable to most outside Tampa Bay. While golfing in Hilton Head, S.C., Tomlin was hounded by Steelers fans and offered to buy drinks for anyone who could identify Morris. Nobody could.
"They don't even know me at my own games right now," Morris said. "They've got me as (linebackers coach) Joe Baker, so I love going beneath the radar."
A win today against the Steelers and Tomlin might go a long way toward changing that.
Bucs (2-0) vs. Steelers (2-0)
1 p.m., Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
Radio: 620-AM, 103.5-FM. Line, O/U: Steelers by 3, 33½